Picks and Pans Review: Love and Loss in Hong Kong

updated 01/19/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Janice Y. K. Lee

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People PICK

The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong circa 1942—when formerly pampered expatriates wound up in internment camps and native Chinese citizens suffered harrowing deprivations—is still emitting aftershocks when 28-year-old Claire Pendleton arrives from England in 1952. Married to Martin, a milquetoast fellow Brit with a job in the Department of Water Services, and sheltered from the ways of the world by a provincial upbringing, Pendleton (the piano teacher of the title) has no inkling of the wartime horrors simmering beneath the surface of a seemingly restored society. An affair with guarded expat Will Truesdale—whose tragic love for mercurial Eurasian socialite Trudy Liang a decade earlier is the heartbreak that haunts the novel—serves as the catalyst for unearthing long-buried secrets. Author Lee, a former editor at Elle magazine, is as comfortable illuminating Hong Kong's glittering pre-occupation social swirl as she is describing the conflict between survival and honor in wartime. That primal struggle comes to bear upon nearly every character in this shattering, immensely satisfying debut.

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